INTERVIEW: David Gray “My deepest instincts are to sing out”

“Sometimes music does feel like a dead end, in that I feel I may have done it all and think ‘Where do I go from here?’ but right now I’m in a world of possibilities,” says David Gray. Then he sighs, pauses and tells me the good news: he’s hoping to wrap up a new album by the end of the year. “I’m obsessed with getting on with things. But at the same time I must give my body of work its due. It exists. The first thing I was struck by when listening back to all these songs – whether it was ‘Babylon’ or something from my first album — is how human the whole thing sounds.”

The songs he’s referring to are the hand-picked tracks that comprise The Best Of David Gray, a retrospective collection of the highlights of his entire body of work to date. “You can tell when you’re doing the good stuff, and that’s how it feels at the moment. There’s a ring of poetic truth waiting around every corner, and when I listened back to the old stuff, I was checking if that was still there. But really, this record picked itself. We’ve shuffled the running order and picked a couple of new songs, and in the Deluxe Edition I made an artist’s pick which included some songs that I always refer back to to make sure I’m on the right path, that hold some kind of nugget of truth for me.”

And the truth, as far as the music-buying punter is concerned, is that these songs have weathered the years remarkably well, untainted as they are by fads and fashions. Never one to allow his name to be sullied by a manufactured tabloid stand-off with a fellow star – as did some in the 1990s – David Gray just got on with the music and, consequently, has emerged with his rep and hide intact.

“Writing music doesn’t get any easier, but my approach now is more open ended. I’m enjoying it more and more and I’m not so precious about writing anymore. Back in the day when I started out, I would prepare a song, finish it, then take it into the studio. But these days I start with nothing and then involve people very early on, hoping that it will grow and branch in ways I couldn’t have imagined. You see, I have written so many songs, and so the sound of me putting one foot in front of the other, creatively speaking, is not something I’m after. I’m trying to escape from that into something I don’t know. I need to go somewhere else. It’s not getting any easier to do good stuff, but I am enjoying it more and more.”

But what about creative pitfalls? “It’s easy to get lost in the details. But the good songs do last with you. Some songs are of their time.” But then, ever thoughtful, he makes further enquiry of himself. “Why should the world listen to me saying the same things over and over again? I mean, I will say the same things again, but if it’s done in an open-hearted way, you’ll sing it from a different angle. You might be on the other side of a broken relationship or at the start of a new one. Things change, sometimes dramatically, sometimes gradually. Your imagination is soaking up this stuff all the time. Self consciousness is so restrictive, so I want to stay ahead of myself. It’s about being aware of what you’re doing and why. I’m walking a tightrope from the word go and I’m just trying to keep my balance while pushing the whole thing forward. It’s free, and I’m excited by it.”

But was he surprised by his first wave of commercial success? “We’d finished White Ladder (1998), and me and [Craig McClune] Clune were looking at each other and wondering if the fans in Ireland would like the new material or might think when they heard the new stuff ‘What’s this shite?’ His laughter breaks the tension his voice betrays in remembering the worries of early fame, but he’s in a different place now. “The ride up was absolutely astonishing. We toured that record for three years. But by the end of it, you’re starting to get used to it, and the latent twat that is waiting in everyone starts to appear as you begin to take the whole thing for granted. You start taking on a few airs.”

So he’s been humbled. “Yeah, but the airs wore off quite quickly. Reality bites and you realise that it’s not there forever. I mean, the record industry is very difficult in that it doesn’t monetise anymore, so I spent a lot of money making my last two or three records for my own record label. Of course, the sales part of it has disappeared. But it’s got to turn round. I think people love music as much as they ever have, even if they consume it in a slightly different fashion. I have faith in the long game, but all I have a duty to do is get my part right. At the moment everything rests on the touring, and fortunately I have a big fan base that’s going to be there for me, as long as I don’t do something crazy and lose them all… like making a hip hop album.”

Good musicians help him to refine his raw ideas, he says. “I’m blown away by the technical skill of bands like Radiohead. But you don’t really need that. Like early Dylan, you can do it all with three chords and a few great lines. What’s important is the delicious space around the vocal in which the lyric can happen. But you get there by making a rule, and then breaking it. That’s the creative process.”

He tells me he also has an idea for a magazine “in the broadest form” which will allow him to express himself beyond his songwriting. “It sounds great but it’s just about finding the time to do all this shit,” he laughs. “Yet there’s nothing better than playing music in front of an audience because it strips all the bullshit away. The audience can feel what you’re on about, and there’s nowhere to go except into the music. My deepest instincts are to sing out. I’m not a hider and I don’t veil myself. It’s about singing and connecting, and I don’t want it to be for just an obscure clique. It’s for everybody.”

The Very Best Of David Gray is released on 28th October via iht Records.

Jason Holmes